The heatwave we are currently experiencing in the Lake District has brought back a specific memory of my childhood in Singapore. Hubby, who loves gardening, has been putting up new flower troughs and baskets and digging over the rockery beds in preparation for planting. His enjoyment of this homely past-time reminds me of my dad and how much he too loved his garden.
Dad was garden-mad. He had stands upon stands of exotic orchids which he looked after most lovingly indeed. Besides his orchids and other flowering plants, he also grew fruit trees: rambutan, mango, lime, custard apple, banana and guava. It was the highlight of his day if any of these trees flowered; and when their fruits ripened, he took great delight in picking them for the family to eat.
One day, Dad decided to build a fish pond. It was the monsoon season, and rain was guaranteed almost non-stop day and night. When I was growing up in Singapore, I particularly looked forward to the monsoons as the rains cooled and refreshed the air. I loved the rain and even the thunder, but I was terrified of lightning as I knew that it could be destructive and perhaps kill if it struck any living thing.
It was late December, the height of the monsoon season, when Dad announced that he would begin work on the fish pond. Our neighbour had recently built a beauty under their very fruitful cempedak tree and he was not to be outdone. Dad’s fish pond would sit on the other side of the fence next to the neighbour’s pond.
First things first, and that was to rope in a willing or unwilling helper for his new project. Guess who was volunteered? You got it right. Me! I am not a gardener by any means as I dislike creepy crawlies and there are lots of them in Singaporean gardens; but I was not averse to helping out as I was curious about what this pond would look like. As far as I could tell, we only had a rectangle’s worth of space for this water feature. It was not going to look curvy and pretty like our neighbour’s much larger but shallow pond. I think we had about 5 x 4 feet to play with at the most.
Dad and I started work on the pond one weekend. If we had been working in a professional kitchen, he would have been the head chef and I would have been the kitchen porter. I fetched small tools for him, carried messages from Mum to stop for afternoon tea or take a break, helped by handing him materials as and when he required them, and so on.
The job of digging up a pond, then lining and finishing it was proving to take longer than anticipated. Meanwhile, I was starting to get tired of this pond-building lark. All I wanted to do was to cross the road over to the play park opposite our house and enjoy myself playing with friends and siblings on the see-saws, swings, maze, slides and other fun games.
One day, I remember seeing Dad in the garden whilst I sat in the house because I was sure that the ominous black clouds above signified an impending storm. But my father was stubborn. His aim was to complete the build that day and he was going to do it by hook or by crook. Thus, clad in his tan shorts and white singlet, Dad went out to continue working on his project.
Then the heavens opened. The day had started on a grey note with some sympathetic rain drops accompanying the darkening sky. However, Dad paid no heed and I can still see him in my mind’s eye squatting by the side of this dratted pond in order to finish the tiling around it. At 12 years of age, I was old enough to realise that Dad, who was only clad in a thin cotton singlet and shorts and, already soaked through from the earlier drizzle, could catch a severe chill if he continued to get wetter and colder with this heavy downpour.
Thus it was that I grabbed an umbrella and rushed out to Dad to remonstrate with him and tell him that he should return to the house instead of completing the build. When this 12-year old’s plea fell on deaf ears, I was left with a choice of either going back indoors or standing over my father with the umbrella held over his head so that he would no longer be rained upon. So I stayed by Dad’s side, with a black umbrella stuck out at arm’s length over his head. Now I was the one getting soaked!
I still remember shivering with cold in my shorts and t-shirt while holding the umbrella over Dad’s head to protect him. Dad was lost in a world of his own. The pair of black-framed spectacles that had sat so correctly on his face some moments ago was sliding down the bridge of his nose and he could barely see through its rain-dashed lenses. His singlet clung to his frame and his slippers were filled with water so that his feet were encased in puddles of rainwater and mud.
It never occurred to me to leave Dad and let him stay outside all on his lonesome even though we were both wet through. In a funny sort of way, this experience bound us in a way that had always escaped our relationship. I knew that I was a huge disappointment when I was born because I had not been born a boy; thus it was that I was given a boy’s name in the hope that the next child would be born male. Unfortunately, this old man’s tale perpetuated by my paternal grandfather did not come true, and my sister was born next.
Dad eventually finished building the pond at 6 pm that rainy day just as the evening’s meagre light blinked out. I could not have been more thankful that the project was now complete. It was finally time to go back into the house to wash and change into dry clothing.
Dad passed away in 1987. When I think of Dad and his garden, my first thought is of how much he loved his orchids. Dad was particularly fond of his orchids and nurtured them beautifully. When he died, Mum was unable to lavish the same care and attention he gave them and all his priceless orchids were given away to various family members who had coveted them over the years.
Thus it is the pond in our Singapore home which still survives in the garden 25 years after my father’s death that serves as a touching reminder of how deeply attached Dad was to his small garden kingdom. When I think of that pond, I remember a man still in his prime with a deep fondness for all things green and flowering. When I look at the pond, now lined with verdigris, I think of that long ago 12-year old girl who so hopefully held a flimsy umbrella over her father’s head in a vainglorious attempt to keep him dry against torrential monsoon rains – and I smile bemusedly at her misguided if well-intentioned actions.
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